Former 'shopaholics' now seek bargains rather than high-ticket designer duds

March 11, 1992|By Pat Morgan | Pat Morgan,Detroit Free Press

Kelly Levinson knows exactly what she wants from her clothes.

"They should be fashionable, but not too trendy," says Ms. Levinson, 36, who sells computer software. "They have to be versatile. They have to be comfortable."

It also helps a lot if they're on sale.

A self-described former shopaholic who used to spend "more money than I like to think about" on clothes, Ms. Levinson, a new mother, has reorganized her priorities.

Buying designer outfits no longer ranks at the top of the list. In fact, Ms. Levinson says, high-ticket designer duds are in imminent danger of being scratched off altogether.

She's not the only one checking her list.

If "conspicuous consumption" was the catch phrase of the spend-and-splurge '80s, "perceived value" is emerging as the ringing chorus of the scrimp-and-save '90s.

Many retailers point to the lingering recession as the culprit, but analysts say the change is much more profound.

"The switch toward more affordable, reasonably priced clothing started in 1987, emerged as a full-blown trend in 1988, and it isn't going away," says Kurt Barnard, president of the Retail Marketing Report in New York. "The recession has exacerbated the situation, but it did not cause it.

"If anything, it's the other way around. Consumer retreat contributed to the recession in the first place," he says.

So if it isn't the recession that's making shoppers look for better deals, what is it?

"Simple answer," Mr. Barnard says. "The aging of America. The median age in America is 33 and rapidly rising. We'll be at 36 by the end of the decade."

The spending shift is another phenomenon of the baby boom, he says. Baby boomers who until recently were spending much of their money on clothes and cars are getting married, buying houses, starting families.

"An awful lot of people are married and have home mortgages and kids who just a few years ago didn't have them," Mr. Barnard says. "Little kids cost big money. The baby boomers are faced with all kinds of expenses, and also are at the age where they are thinking about putting away money for retirement and college educations.

"All of these factors work to significantly reduce discretionary spending. They may still have Neiman Marcus tastes, but they are operating more on a Kmart budget."

That's not so bad, given "a cultural movement against the excesses of the '80s," says Alan Millstein of the Fashion Network Report. "Nobody is ashamed to say they shop at Kmart anymore."

That's at least in part because Kmart, along with other discount TTC retailers, has undergone a self-imposed image change.

"Kmart was right there, with some other smart retailers who saw this coming," adds Mr. Barnard. "The Kmarts and the Wal-marts and off-price stores are giving more service and better quality."

All of which is great news for consumers who have always shopped such places. They're now getting more for their money as well, even if they have less money to spend in the first place.

"The status these days is not in how much you spent, but how much you saved," Mr. Millstein says.

As a result, even consumers well-schooled in upscale shopping suddenly are looking for ways to get more for their money, and that rare ly means paying $1,200 for a jacket.

"I still occasionally buy something from a top-name designer," Ms. Levinson says. "But it's maybe one jacket, and only if I absolutely love it. Then I wear it with stuff I have, or I buy cheaper things to wear under it."

Again, she's hardly alone in her new frugality.

Retailers say shoppers have become much more item-oriented, meaning they buy a special jacket or a great accessory where they once bought entire outfits.

"People are definitely buying fewer pieces," says Mary Jo Scofes, vice president and merchandise manager for the designer departments at Jacobson's. "At the designer level, a jacket is the easiest sell, because it is the focal point. Everyone has a black skirt or black leggings or a black turtleneck to wear with a great jacket. And if the jacket costs $1,000, everything under it looks expensive, too."

For the savvy shopper, that means everything under it can be far less costly. Sophisticated consumers know that hot looks are "interpreted" at cheaper prices almost immediately.

Pleated skirts became available at moderate-price stores such as Banana Republic and the Gap at the same time they were arriving in pricier department stores and boutiques. Paying $250 for a pair of designer-label leggings makes little sense to a shopper who knows she can get leggings for $30 at the Limited, or even at Target for half that.

Understand that this mixing strategy needn't include any designer merchandise; great-looking sweaters can be found at many prices. Style savvy is more important than big bucks.

Some helpful hints:

It's much easier to "cheat" if the item isn't the main attraction of the outfit. Black leggings or a black catsuit, for example, act mostly as background for whatever is worn over them.

If you know how the high-priced stuff looks and feels, you'll know a good knockoff when you see it. The fashion-savvy shopper knows that a white cotton shirt should be big and long enough to act as a tunic over slim leggings or a skinny skirt. She knows whether the most current sweaters are cropped or oversized, whether pale blue or chrome yellow is the latest spring hue, and that denim is a hot fashion fabric.

And she also knows she has more important things to spend her money on.

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